Online safety must be a priority for Facebook across the world

This Wednesday, two Ethiopian men sued Meta Platforms Inc in a Nairobi High Court for failing to moderate malicious content repeatedly posted on Facebook.

The Kenyan Constitution could determine the way FaceBook and several social media platforms operate across the world. It is nearly two decades since the late President Mwai Kibaki mistakenly called FaceBook, "FatBook" in an official path-breaking speech that educated Kenyans on the internet.

This year alone, this column has pointed out the exponential growth of the internet and the implications of social media platforms failing to regulate hate for our democracy and rights no less than five times.

This week, Fisseha Tekle and Abrham Meareg filed a constitutional petition demanding Sh250 billion in damages for online hate speech.

The two-year-old Ethiopian war has been one of the deadliest conflicts in the world and claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people. Prof Meareg Amare, Abrham's father, is one of them. Prof Amare was first profiled as a TPLF supporter on the Meta platform in October 2021. Despite several complaints, his place of work remained online, and posts continued to violate Meta's own community standards. Within weeks, Prof Amare was dead and his widow and four children sent into hiding.

Before he was assassinated on November 3rd, Prof Amare was an accomplished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Bahir Dar.

Armed men attacked him on his way home, shot him in the legs and back and left him to bleed out on a public street. The respected 60-year-old professor didn't use FaceBook himself and when alerted, felt decades of community service would protect him. Northern Ethiopia had already been a crime site for crimes against humanity for a year. Human rights organisations, governments, and International Commission of Human Rights experts have documented and released evidence of mass civilian killings, gang rapes and starvation in the war between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Tigrayan and Eritrean fighters.

Hundreds of thousands had lost their lives or been starved and displaced by the conflict by the time of his assassination. Diasporan Ethiopians working to stop human rights violations have not been spared. Amnesty colleague Fisseha Tekle has spent the last two years independently documenting violence by all parties to the Ethiopian war.

Last year, he too became a target. Like Dr Amare, Mr Tekle found himself targeted by unmoderated and advertisement enhanced hate-filled posts. The constitutional case has been lodged in Kenya as the Meta regional hub for content moderation. The suit is classic public interest work. The petitioners seek orders causing Facebook to set aside Sh250 billion for an Advertisements Victims Fund in Kenya. The fund will benefit any future Facebook user in Kenya who has been the victim of boosted or sponsored hate posts.

This is the second significant case Meta is facing in a Kenyan court. Earlier this year, South African content moderator Daniel Motaung sued the company for exploitative, poor working conditions at its Nairobi office on behalf of several Kenyan employees.

Both cases indicate FaceBook algorithms and advertising accelerate controversial, hateful and inciteful content. As this column has argued, Meta, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram disproportionately under-invests in content moderation in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Legal counsel Mercy Mutemi further argued in court this Wednesday that while the platform is technologically able to stop this, it has chosen to host even pro-terrorist propaganda.

FaceBook critics have pointed to similar lapses in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and the US, where viral incitement helped fuel Capitol Hill riots. However, as digital rights advocate Mutemi points out, in the case of the US Capitol attack, Meta deployed a 'Break the Glass' procedure to mute dangerous content. This does not appear to have been harnessed in the case of Africans. Until then, Abrham and Teckle are seeking justice for millions of Africans hurt by Facebook's profiteering.

The Meta case further establishes Kenya not only as a sanctuary nation for refugees but as a jurisdiction for online safety for not only Kenyans but possibly, the 4.7 billion social media users across the world.

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